Self-Sabotage: Definition and Why We Do It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mountain Is You" by Brianna Wiest. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the definition of self-sabotage? How can you overcome this toxic behavior?

To sabotage yourself means destroying yourself physically, emotionally, or mentally, and preventing yourself from achieving success. In The Mountain Is You, Brianna Wiest goes into more detail about the definition of self-sabotage and why we do it.

Read more for the detailed self-sabotage definition.

What Is Self-Sabotage?

Wiest argues that the definition of self-sabotage is the avoidance tactics your brain develops in an attempt to protect you from your fears. For example, if you fear being alone, you may avoid this fear with the self-sabotaging tactic of staying in abusive relationships. If you fear failure, you may avoid this fear with the self-sabotaging tactic of never applying for the jobs you truly want. If you fear being disliked, you may avoid this fear with the self-sabotaging tactic of pretending to be someone you’re not.

(Shortform note: While Wiest argues that self-sabotage is your mind’s effort to help you avoid situations you’re afraid of, Jocko Willink has a harsher view on the matter. In Discipline Equals Freedom, Willink agrees that self-sabotaging behaviors stem from fears; however, he believes that these fears aren’t of situations, as Wiest says, but rather are fears of the work it takes to succeed in those situations. So, in Willink’s view, self-sabotage is a form of laziness and a way to avoid doing scary, painful, or hard work.)

You tend to develop unhealthy fears when you lack the mental or emotional skills (ME skills) necessary to handle difficult situations—Wiest refers to ME skills as emotional intelligence and mental strength. For example, you may fear being alone if you lack the ME skills to independently satisfy your emotional needs. You may fear failure if you lack the ME skill of self-confidence. You may fear being disliked if you lack the ME skill of self-love and consequently desire external validation.

(Shortform note: Other experts agree with Wiest that self-sabotage often happens when your emotions hijack your thinking and you lack the emotional intelligence skills (or ME skills) necessary to regain control. They add that the skills most helpful in avoiding emotional hijacking and self-sabotage are empathy, awareness, and compassion. These skills are important in overcoming self-sabotage because they allow us to accurately understand ourselves and others.)

Wiest explains that ME skill deficiencies usually develop because of life circumstances that prevented you from developing certain skills. For example, having an absent parent who denied you love and encouragement might have prevented you from developing ME skills like self-confidence and self-love. You’re then likely to fear being in a similar situation in future relationships.

(Shortform note: In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins cites another way that an emotionally unhealthy past can lead to self-sabotaging behavior. He elaborates that negative past experiences can create what he calls neuro-associations that influence how you perceive and behave in future situations. For instance, if you had an absent parent, you might associate intimate relationships with negative emotions because the relationship with your parent caused you such emotional pain. Consequently, you might engage in the self-sabotaging behavior of pushing away people who love you because you’re afraid you’ll end up getting hurt in the end.)

Wiest argues that the tactics you use to avoid your fears are self-sabotaging because they’re holding you back in life. You use them as a crutch to avoid difficult situations rather than developing the ME skills required to face them, which you must do to grow and achieve your life purpose. 

(Shortform note: In The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday agrees that facing and overcoming difficult situations is necessary for personal growth. However, Holiday goes a step further, arguing that you should actively embrace difficult situations as a means of developing as a person—difficult situations teach us things that we may not have otherwise discovered. He notes that tragedies shake us out of our comfort zone, reveal new choices in life that may not have been possible before, uncover our strengths, and help us find meaning in life. And failure—the process of trial and error—is the most effective way to learn. Failure prompts you to look at things in a new light and develop ideas you may not have otherwise thought of.)

How to Overcome Self-Sabotage

Wiest explains that there are two steps to overcoming self-sabotage: 

  1. Identify your self-sabotaging behaviors and the ME deficiencies that they stem from. This will help you pinpoint the barriers preventing you from success.

Overcome your self-sabotaging behaviors by improving your ME skills, identifying your life purpose and ideal self, and taking active steps toward achieving these goals.

Self-Sabotage: Definition and Why We Do It

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Brianna Wiest's "The Mountain Is You" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Mountain Is You summary:

  • Why the only thing standing in your way of achieving your goals is you
  • How to achieve your life purpose and become your ideal self
  • How to identify your self-sabotaging behaviors and stop them

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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